Industry testimonies reveal division over 2023 Farm Bill

Rural broadband stakeholders met with the House Committee on Agriculture this week to give their two cents on the next iteration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Bill, which is up for renewal in the back half of 2023.

The leaders from nationwide broadband organizations who testified before the Committee mostly agreed that better communication and more standardization is needed across both private and public broadband organizations in order to streamline processes and avoid redundant buildouts.

However, opinions varied over whether the federal government should require higher symmetrical internet speeds for providers to be eligible for funding.

The Farm Bill includes programs and policies that address qualifying areas, long-term network viability and funding for the country’s most remote communities. But "sadly, too many of those policies and programs remain dormant,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson (PA-15), Chairman of the House Committee, at the start of the hearing.

Over 10 million Americans still do not have access to broadband, and studies have estimated that within that number sits 50% or more of rural America.

Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer of NTCA– The Rural Broadband Association – said the second-generation Farm Bill should support high-speed symmetrical broadband networks that offer a minimum of 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds.

Bloomfield argued that setting performance standards is a matter of public interest in building “future-proof” networks.

“With so much on the line in terms of dollars and unserved customers, this is not the time to award participation trophies. Setting standards is not a matter of technological neutrality – it is a matter of public interest and fiscal responsibility,” she said, expressing support for a 100/100 Mbps minimum speed threshold for eligible projects to receive USDA funds.

Bloomfield dismissed claims that most consumers don’t want or need 100 Mbps symmetrical services yet, pointing to data from Ookla that showed average U.S. fixed broadband speeds of 179/65 Mbps in January 2021. She argued that advocating for "build-to" speeds of 100/20 Mbps is outdated, as consumer expectations have already surpassed those levels.

Addressing competition concerns about such requirements favoring fiber providers and technology, Bloomfield cited the oversubscription of the USDA’s ReConnect Loan and Grant Program during rounds three and four -- which according to her, proved that most providers are capable of building networks that meet high demands.

She added while some NTCA members have used fixed wireless technology to serve hard-to-reach areas, she considers it a less desirable long-term solution due to interference, reliability issues and limited spectrum capacity.

Jim Matheson, the CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), also emphasized the importance of prioritizing scalable and “future-proof” networks in the next rounds of federal funding. He argued that the challenge of bridging the broadband gap in rural America would persist if networks are not expected to grow to meet increased bandwidth needs and consumer demands.

While gigabit speed networks are becoming common in urban areas, discussions around rural access often settle for what is considered "good enough," Matheson said. He added that broadband services should be equitable regardless of where individuals choose to live, and taxpayer dollars should be invested in networks and technologies that can meet current and future needs.

Matheson called for an update to the definition for areas “unserved” by broadband. Currently, federal programs define unserved areas as those lacking service at 25/3 Mbps and “underserved” areas as those lacking service at 100/20 Mbps.

Yet the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) definition of broadband remains at 25/3 Mbps, which was established almost a decade ago, he pointed out.

Matheson argued that the definition should be revised to reflect current consumer demands, as he noted some reports that indicate a significant percentage of homes in the U.S. receive internet service offering speeds of 200 Mbps or more, with a growing number subscribing to gigabit or faster speeds.

“Reports indicate that we are trending toward multi-gigabit networks by 2030,” he said. “It is clear that technology and user demand for bandwidth are exponentially increasing, which is why networks built in rural areas must be able to keep up with these growing demands.”

Maintaining tech neutrality for unserved areas

David Zumwalt, President and CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), during the hearing presented testimony on behalf of WISPs, which represent companies providing connectivity to unserved and underserved areas across the country.

Zumwalt highlighted that WISPs serve approximately nine million Americans, primarily in unserved, under-resourced and Tribal territories, and countered the notion that fixed wireless is a less desirable solution to bridging the digital divide.

Zumwalt said WISPs (which use fiber and wireless spectrum) specifically focus on areas that have been ignored by larger carriers due to high deployment costs, as they only require a tower or tall building, radio transmitters, consumer-premises equipment and licensed or unlicensed spectrum.

Fixed wireless broadband has emerged as a reliable solution for connecting these communities, according to Zumwalt, who noted a 2021 report from The Carmel Group that showed WISPs can deploy fixed wireless service to residential consumers at a fraction of the cost of fiber-to-the-premises.

Further, he maintained that fixed wireless deployment is faster compared to other alternatives, and said the technology continues to improve, with download speeds exceeding 1 Gbps achievable using current fixed wireless equipment.

Zumwalt disagreed with giving preference to specific types of broadband providers, advocating for the Farm Bill broadband programs to remain technologically neutral, warning that deviating from this principle would increase costs and further delay broadband deployment to high-cost rural areas, ultimately hindering connectivity for those who need it most.

“The Farm Bill has been assisting rural communities entering the digital age for many years. For this reason, it is critical that the Farm Bill’s broadband programs stay focused on those communities that are truly unserved,” he said. No community should be asked to wait even longer for broadband so that other communities receive upgraded network buildouts they don’t actually need,” he said.

Regarding the ReConnect program, Zumwalt expressed support for its goals but raised concerns about certain requirements. He argued against the emphasis on symmetrical speeds, as consumers prioritize download speeds over upload speeds.

James Assey, EVP of NCTA – The Internet and Television Association – told the Committee that cable can meet most consumer requirements, and agreed that upping speed requirements could result in over-focus on underserved areas while ignoring unserved areas.

Basing eligibility criteria on speculative predictions about future upload speed demand would be counterproductive, especially when many communities remain unserved, Assey said.

Assey also highlighted the USDA’s recent modification of speed thresholds used to determine sufficient broadband access, which now allow areas with up to 50% of households having access to broadband service to qualify for funding. Assey argued this change would divert funds away from the areas that are 90% unserved, typically the most challenging to reach, leaving them without service.

He pointed out this approach would incentivize providers to prioritize projects with better economic returns, leaving the areas in most need of assistance at a disadvantage.

To address these concerns, Assey proposed establishing an "absolute priority" for qualified applications to extend service to areas without the basic speed of 25/3 Mbps. He suggested allocating a significant portion of funding to such projects or even stipulating that no funding should be granted for projects in underserved areas (speeds between 25/3 and 100/20) until at least 80% of areas lacking 25/3 have been covered.

Otherwise, Assey said "[providers will naturally pursue projects] with better potential economic return, while those areas most in need of assistance will again end up at the back of the line."